By Jeri Smith-Ready
I always swore I’d throw a party when I got my first rejection letter from a publisher. Imagine how lucky I felt when it arrived on my birthday. One party, two stoned birds.
My writer friend Rob was the only person at my celebration who didn’t gaze at me as if my wrists were already oozing. He congratulated me, seeing the rejection letter for what it was-not a preemptive obituary for my fragile ego, but a natural first step in my career.
Only writers understand other writers. Without kindred spirits, a writer can go batty, thinking she’s the only one who has surges of invincibility paired with attacks of paranoia.
That’s when I had the idea of writers’ groups.
I don’t mean a writers’ group where we read each other’s work and then fall upon it like jackals. I mean a Group, as in group therapy, with a psychologist certified in treating artistic temperaments. There’s a group for every other disorder and disorderly situation. Any writer’s spouse will tell you that we’re as unstable as your average codependent narcoleptic pyromaniac.
My fellow Groupies and I could nurse each other’s wounds, cheer each other’s victories, and, with the help of our wise and patient counselor, address whatever personality defect inspired us to write in the first place. Perhaps it would go a little something like this:
Scene: Private corner of large bookstore coffee shop.
DR. SCHULER beckons the group members (RANDY, DENISE, STAN,
SUSAN, and ME).
DR. S: Is everybody here? Randy, let’s start on time tonight, okay?
RANDY: They’re out of nutmeg. (Slams his spoon against the condiments rack) Why are they ALWAYS out of nutmeg?!!
DR. S: Come over here, and let’s talk about that. Why do you think you get so frustrated when faced with small obstacles?
RANDY (stomping to his chair, sloshing his cappuccino): Because people are stupid?
DENISE: It’s because he has writers’ block.
RANDY: I do not!
DENISE: You just told me you did, a minute ago. Creative constipation, you called it.
RANDY: No, that’s what you called it, and the imagery doesn’t help.
SUSAN: Are you done, Randy?
SUSAN: Because I have something I need to talk about. Do you ever feel like you never have any time to yourself? I don’t mean no time alone, I mean time without characters butting into your thoughts. I don’t know what I feel about anything anymore as a person. I can’t even hear a song on the radio without wondering whether Bruce would like it.
STAN: Bruce? Is that your husband?
SUSAN: No, Bruce is the main character in my novel! Weren’t you listening?
STAN: Oh. Oh, yeah, I was listening.
DR. S: Susan, I think your empathy with Bruce can help you understand his motivations. Just don’t let it interfere with your real life.
SUSAN: But I’m at the point in the novel where Bruce eats his office mates.
(DENISE and I, who are sitting next to SUSAN, skooch our chairs away from her a little.)
DR. S: Maybe you should try writing another story for a while. Let another character into your head.
SUSAN: I can’t. Bruce would be jealous.
STAN: I have a similar problem, although much worse than yours, of course. My problem is that I can’t ever really “be” in the moment. Every event is fiction material. I spent my wedding inventing clever ways to describe the flowers and wondering if our vows could be considered snappy dialogue.
When bad things happen to people I love, all I can think is, wow, what a great story, if we change the dead hamster to a baby brother and make the setting Beirut instead of Pittsburgh. I almost forget to say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “I’m sure that lump’s not malignant.” What kind of person does that make me?
ALL: A writer.
RANDY: Stan, stop whining. If you hate it so much, quit writing and become an accountant.
STAN: I am an accountant. (An embarrassed silence falls on the group.)
ME (clearing my throat): I got another rejection letter today.
DENISE: Aw, that’s too bad, hon.
ME: Four, actually. I got four rejection letters.
(Now people are skooching their chairs away from me, in case it’s contagious.)
DR.S: How are you handling your rejection this week?
ME: I try to do like you said and not take it personally. I know it’s not a reflection of my talent or my worth as a human being. More likely, it’s a reflection of their willingness to sleepwalk through life, their choice to deal in mindless, status quo-reinforcing drivel while ignoring the revolution under their noses. I’m keeping all my rejection letters so that when I’m rich and famous and powerful I can publish the list of trolls who once shunned me.
RANDY: That’s mature.
SUSAN: It sounds like you’re planning your own little Judgment Day, with lists of those who shall be rewarded and those who shall be damned.
ME: Pretty much.
SUSAN: Cool! I’m gonna do that, too.
DR.S: I don’t think that’s a very constructive way of dealing with-
ME: Which list do you want to be on, Dr. Schuler?
ME: Do you really support us, or do you keep us just crazy enough so that we keep coming back?
DR.S: I don’t know what you-
DENISE: Oh, come on, Doctor, we all know you’re a failed, frustrated ex-writer yourself.
STAN: Yeah, you’re a bitter, washed-up never-was, and you’d be jealous if any of us actually succeeded.
DR.S: What?! J-jealous!?! Of you sorry bunch of self-proclaimed artistes? (To Denise) You have the grammatical skills of a wombat. (To Stan) Your prose should be classified by the Department of Defense as biological warfare. (To Randy) Existential angst is not, I repeat, NOT sexy. (To Susan) If I read one more word about your alcoholic father who performed Zoroastrian rituals in your garage, I’ll chew my own eyes out. (To Me) And you…there’s just no help for you.
ME: Maybe I don’t need help. Maybe I’m fine the way I am, the way we all are-hypersensitive and self-absorbed. But at least we still try, and we’ll keep trying as long as there’s a story out there to be told, as long as there’s a gasp of life left in us, as long as-aw, the hell with it. Let’s go get drunk.
We march out of the coffee shop, liberated, leaving our counselor with the bill. We spend the next few hours hanging out behind the drug store dumpster passing a bottle of Wild Turkey until we get ornery enough to start hitting each other. When the ambulance comes and we’re all lying in pools of each other’s blood and vomit, we each think to ourselves, “I’ve got to write this experience down, first chance I get.”